DEAR DOCTOR K:
Age and arthritis have done a number on my hands. I’d like to continue cooking, eating and dressing independently, but it’s getting harder. Any advice?
Many years ago I had a patient who taught me the importance of what I’m about to tell you. She was in her late 70s, retired, widowed and lived alone. She had been extremely independent all of her life. However, with age her dexterity and fine motor skills had diminished. In addition, the combination of arthritis and a small stroke had made cooking and grooming difficult.
One day she came into my office and sat down, in her usual regal way. I asked her how she was doing, and she suddenly burst into tears: “I’m useless, just useless!”
I referred her to see a physical and occupational therapist, who told her (and me) about a variety of tools available to help perform everyday activities. Indeed, there are more such tools today than there were then. Most cost less than $50 or $100, and they are widely available in drugstores, medical supply stores and online.
I spoke to geriatrician Dr. Suzanne Salamon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, about devices she recommends to her patients:
- EATING TOOLS. Weighted eating utensils — forks, knives and spoons — make it easier for people with hand tremors to get food to their mouths. The weight cuts down on the amount of hand shaking, which keeps food on the utensil. If your wrist or arm dexterity is diminished, try curved eating utensils, which are twisted to adjust to your grip.
- SKID-CONTROL PLATES AND BOWLS have high sides and rubber rings or bottoms. These enable you to push food against the side of the bowl or plate in order to load your fork or spoon.
- COOKING TOOLS. If your grip strength isn’t what it once was, a bottle or jar opener makes a big difference. One-handed tools are also helpful if a stroke or injury prevents two-handed cooking and food prep. For example, a one-handed vegetable brush with suction cups on the bottom allows you to rub vegetables against it to clean them.
- HOUSEHOLD TOOLS. One of the most helpful household tools is a grabber. This long-handled tool has pincers at the end to grab anything that’s out of reach. I used one of these when I was recovering from hip replacement surgery and could not bend down much. It really helped. You can also buy large covers to fit over doorknobs or lamp switches, making them easier to turn. Or purchase book holders that let you read hands-free.
- PERSONAL GROOMING. If it’s difficult for you to reach down, behind or above your body, it can be difficult to groom yourself. Look for long-handled and curved versions of hairbrushes and combs, toenail clippers and shoehorns. Substitute an electric toothbrush for your manual one. And look into the many tools that are available to help with dressing, such as zipper pulls and shirt buttoners.
Several of these tools restored my patient’s ability to be independent and her self-confidence. I’m sure they can help you.